The football team from Charlotte, N.C., flew in with a record of 15-1 in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs with impressive postseason victories over the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals. Analytical minds would not have been out of their heads to compare the ’15 Panthers to the ’48 Browns, ’72 Dolphins and ’85 Bears as among the greatest in the 95 years that they’ve played this game for money.
Then they kicked the ball off Sunday, and the sweet Carolines who made a name for themselves this year by having so much fun on their way to the Super Bowl laid a Panther-blue egg.
Their bumblings decided a Super Bowl that Panther fans can’t wait to forget. The Denver Broncos’ defense got a major assist, but the 24-10 defeat of the Panthers was just as much a Carolina flop.
“Disappointment more so than anything else,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said after the defeat. “We had opportunities. We didn’t take advantage of it. They took advantage of their opportunities.”
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton went into the game touted as the new face of the NFL. He went out of it as a guy who had his features rearranged by the Broncos.
Known for his speed and power, Newton couldn’t dodge the Denver pass rush. Six times, the Broncos sacked him. Twice, he fumbled while getting whacked.
Early in the game, Denver linebacker Von Miller dropped into the Panthers’ backfield to say hello to Newton. The violent meeting resulted in the separation of Newton from the ball. The Broncos’ Malik Jackson fell on it in the end zone for Denver, and all of a sudden the Broncos had a double-digit lead.
Late in the game, Miller paid Newton another visit and again knocked the ball out of the quarterback’s grasp. This turnover, too, resulted in a Broncos touchdown, although their offense this time was called in to complete the job.
Newton missed more receivers than he found, completing only 18 of 41 passes. When he did manage to put it on their hands or in their breadbaskets, on many occasions they they couldn’t hold onto it.
He threw an interception to kill off a Carolina third-quarter excursion into Denver’s side of the field.
Newton, however, was only the most obvious bumbler on the day for Carolina. He was joined in ineptitude by his fullback, Mike Tolbert, who fumbled when it appeared the Panthers had it going in the second quarter. Also in that 15 minutes of play, a couple of special-teamers bumped into Denver’s Jordan Norwood, but neither deigned to tackle the Broncos punt returner, who ran the kick deep into the Panthers’ side of the field to set up a field goal.
The Blues could neither sustain nor generate momentum. Their kicker, Graham Gano, missed a field-goal try. Their coaches sent too many of their running backs into the middle of the Denver defense too many times for too little yardage. They took too much time to run plays. They jumped too early on both offense and defense. They blocked guys in the back and committed an unclean total of 12 penalties for 102 yards.
The Panthers showed Sunday they were susceptible to trouble outside the Piedmont. On their home plateau in the Carolinas, the playoff Panthers blasted out of the blocks and fed off the enthusiasm of their followers in Bank of America Stadium.
Against Denver, they played to swells dressed mostly in Denver orange.
Late in the regular season they lost on the road, to Atlanta, 20-13, to end Carolina’s hopes for a perfect season. Maybe that game was more instructive about the real-life Panthers than the other-worldly destructiveness they laid on Seattle and Arizona.
Before the game, the Carolina players laughed and danced and got in the groove. Then they came out when it counted and put on a clunker instead of a clinic. Corey Brown, one of the Panthers’ wide receivers, called Cam Newton the team’s “fire starter.” In the one he set Sunday, it was the Panthers who got burned.